Polyculture Trials - Polyculture vs Block Planting

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Polyculture Trials - Polyculture vs Block Planting

Post: # 288583Post Balkep »

We've completed the second year of our Market Garden Polyculture Study with some interesting results. This year we added a new polyculture to the trials and included a comparison between growing vegetables in a polyculture and growing them in more traditional blocks.

Below you will find an overview of the trial garden and the polycultures we are growing, a description of what we record and the results from this year's study.

To view this post with tables and images from our blog click on the link below
http://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.bg ... study.html

First of all we'd like to say a huge thank you to the team of volunteers that joined us for the study this year and that make it possible for us to carry out our experiments and research. It was a pleasure to work together with you

Thank you - Ala Pekalska, Alexandre Duclouet, Biljana Kostovska, Charlotte Wrist Kirk, Dimo Stefanov, Jack Carlowe, Johannes Heuschkel, Marika Wanklyn, Natasha Barbier, Pauline Lousteau, Peter Alfrey, Sandra Koljackova and family, Susan Eggers, Tadeo Melvin and the core team Ute Villavicencio and Kata Prodanov.

Polyculture Market Garden Study Crew 2016

Garden Overview

Climate: Continental Temperate
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 565 m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5 mm
Co-ordinates: 42.71259, 25.32575

The six longer beds in the left hand corner (the Aceaes) of the photo are the trial beds and the focus of the study.
Photos by www.georgipavlov.net

Click here for the Polyculture Market Garden location (labelled as Paulownia Garden on our Project map)

Garden area: 256.8 m2
Cultivated beds area: 165.6 m2
Paths: 50 cm wide - 91.2 m2
Six beds: Dimensions - 23 m x 1.2 m Area - 27.6 m2 per bed

Study Area Path and Bed Layout

The beds are named after common vegetable families in order to familiarize participants with the use of Latin and introduce them to some major plants families. They do not correspond to what was planted in the beds.

The Polycultures

We are experimenting with many polycultures and have developed a categorization system for ease of reference. They are categorized by life cycle i.e annual, perennial or combi (annuals and perennials) and further categorized by function. i.e support, infrastructure or production. Often a polyculture will provide multiple functions, but the primary function is what sets them to each category. I give all the polycultures nicknames. For example, all polycultures in the annual and production category are named after Stoic Philosophers.

The study is based on polycultures Zeno and Epictetus - both are annual and production polycultures. As we are looking to see how polycultures compare to conventional growing, this year we included a control for the Zeno polyculture i.e, the same crops from Zeno but planted in a more conventional block pattern. In the below illustration you can see the planting plan of the trial beds.

Polyculture Zeno

We've been growing Zeno in the garden for around 9 years now. It's been very successful in our home gardens and in 2015 we scaled it up for the market garden. You can see last year's market garden results here and three years of records from the home garden here.

Photos from Zeno Polyculture
For more info on plant spacing, management and maintenance of this polyculture see our previous post here.

Zeno Plant List - The following plants and cultivars were used in this polyculture;

Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Black Krim'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Ukranian Purple'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Tigerealla'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Green Zebra'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Mirabel Yellow Cherry'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Anna Russian'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Citrina'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Marglobe'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Rozava Magia'
Basil - Ocimum basilcium 'Sweet Genovese'
French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Cobra'
French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris - Local
Courgette - Cucurbita pepo 'Black Beauty'
Bush Scallop - Cucurbita pepo
Butternut Squash - Cucurbita pepo 'Waltham Butternut'
African Marigold - Tagetes erecta
French Marigold - Tagetes patula
Pot Marigold - Calendula officinalis

Zeno Planting Scheme

Zeno - Vegetable and herb polyculture/guild 6.5 m section of planting scheme

Zeno Control

We also included a control this year. The control included all of the above plants but planted in blocks along the bed (see below). We wanted to see how the two planting schemes compared i.e. whether the polyculture would produce more and the difference in the amount of time needed to cultivate them. The fertility inputs for both beds were the same.

Polyculture Epictetus

This is the first year we have tried this polyculture. It's basically a strip pattern of various vegetables from different plant families arranged to reduce pests and diseases, optimize space and nutrient share whilst respecting the individual plant needs for space and light.

Epictetus Polyculture

Epictetus Plant List - The following plants and cultivars were used in this polyculture;

Beetroot - Beta vulgaris ' Bolthardy'
Beetroot - Beta vulgaris ' Detroit'
Dwarf Bean - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Lingua Fuoco Nano'
Dwarf Bean - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Rocquencourt'
Kale - Brassica napus 'Siberian'
Kale - Brassica napus 'Scarlett'
Swiss Chard - Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla ' Rainbow'
Parsnip - Pastinaca sativa ' White Gem'
Carrot - Daucus carota 'Autumn King'
French Marigold - Tagetes patula
Pot Marigold - Calendula officinalis

Epictetus Planting Scheme

Epictetus - Vegetable polyculture/guild - 6 m section of planting scheme

The table below shows the floral species composition of each of the beds including the different cultivars and the dates that the plants were sown or planted.

We have not included a list of native wild plants that are encouraged to grow around the perimeter of each bed that we mow and apply as mulch to the beds during the growing season.

What we Record - Inputs

Time Input - We record how long it takes to develop, maintain and manage the garden. The time is recorded for each task starting from sowing the seeds, preparing the beds, planting and caring for the plants, harvesting, preparing for market and packing away. The time taken for each task is rounded up or down to nearest minute. Nearly all of the records are based on 2 people carrying out each task unless otherwise stated in the record sheet.

Fertility Inputs - All fertility additives are recorded including; seed sowing mediums, composts, mulch, liquid fertilizers (comfert) and ash.

Alex and Kata loading up compost for the beds

Financial Inputs - Costs - The costs associated with the garden are recorded. We do not cost the time spent on the garden but do provide the precise time the activities take. Set up and tool costs were included in the first year records. This year we only recorded operating costs.

N.B. We eliminate many costs by growing our own plants from seed, making composts and sowing mediums, growing summer and autumn mulch and saving seeds. We also provide our own support materials for the crops.

Basil seeds in the nursery room

What we Record - Outputs

Crop Yields - All produce is weighed directly after harvest. The produce is recorded into two categories, fit for market and fit for processing/fodder.

Polycultures Yields

Financial output - Profit - The market value of the produce is estimated based on the average prices we were receiving from local buyers, veggie boxes and Trustika buyers club in Sofia.

N.B. We do not sell all of the produce from the garden. Some of the produce is consumed by the team or preserved.

What we Record - Surveys

Soil Analysis - Each spring and autumn we obtain a soil sample and send it to NAAS of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. To take a sample we take approx a hand trial full of the top 20 cm of soil from 8 random areas from the beds, mix it together and send 400g "bagged and tagged" to the lab the same day.

Physical Analysis - Each spring the team carry out a series of 9 tests that are designed to provide an indication of soil health based on observable physical properties of the soil. It's a soil management tool developed by farmers for farmers to track the developing health of soils. You can download the form with instructions how to carry out the tests here. We have slightly modified the test for our purposes.

Regenerative Landscape Design Course participants working through the soil health test cards

Invertebrate Survey - We made a start on the invertebrate survey but have incomplete records and are not entirely happy with the method, so we will try again this coming year. We are looking for entomology enthusiasts to help us with this part of the study. If this interests you please get in touch for further discussion.

Support Species Tagetes spp. and Calendula officinalis are planted within the vegetables and attract a large diversity of invertebrates some of which are beneficial to the crops.


We'll start off by looking at the results from the soil analysis and soil health tests, then look at the results for each polyculture and finally finish up with the overall garden results.

Soil Results - Mineral Analysis

Each spring and autumn we take soil samples and send them to NAAS of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The March sample is taken before we add any fertility and the November sample is taken after all of the crops have stopped producing.

The first sample taken in March 2015 in the table below is the base sample taken before work in the garden began.

Plant available Nitrogen mg/kg Potassium and Phosphorous mg/100g
March pH (KCI) N03N NH4N P205 K20
5.69 15.4 2.89 16.3 13
November pH (KCI) N03N NH4N P205 K20
6.44 16.2 4.45 43.9 14.4
March pH (KCI) N03N NH4N P205 K20
6.65 4.43 5.79 88 25.2
November pH (KCI) N03N NH4N P205 K20
6.61 8.17 3.83 44.1 22.1

Soil Results - Soil Health Card

This year's soil health card test scored 58.9 - an increase from last year's base test of 39.4. The highest score obtainable for this test is 88.

You can find the full results for the 2015 and 2016 test in the spreadsheet 2016 Annual Polyculture Market Garden Study - Published Records - Sheet 6.Soil Test Cards

Should you wish to use this excellent tool you can download the Soil Health Card forms with instructions on how to carry out the tests here.

Inputs and Outputs - Epictetus

The total amount of time spent on Epictetus was 37.5 hrs. The time inputs are recorded into different categories as seen below.

Task Time in mins
Propagation 336
Planting/Sowing 919
Fertility 8
Weeding 721
Irrigation 130
Observation 33
Mowing Paths 99
Total 2246
Total hrs 37.5 hrs

The fertility inputs on Epictetus were as follows:

Fertility Inputs Total Quantity
Mulch - Lawn Mower Clipping 540 L
Mulch - Spot Mulching 1 Bale
wood ash 6.720 kg
Seedling mix for Beans 14 L
Compost planting out Kale, Chard and Aubergine 30 L
Compost for sowing beetroot strips 100 L
Seedling mix for Sowing Parsnips and Carrots and Beetroots 75 L
Compost for Propagation 90 L
Seedling Mix for Propagation 87 L

The yield outputs for Epictetus totaled 87.42 kg of produce. This translates to approx 1.58 kg per m2.

Crop Weight in kgs
Carrots 15.465
Parsnips 19.775
Dwarf Beans 5.025
Swiss Chard 21.56
Kale 13.35
Beetroot 12.245
87.42 kg

N.B there is still some produce in the beds namely parsnips, chard and kale. We'll add these to the records later but I would estimate there to be no more than 10 kg of produce remaining.

Inputs and Outputs - Zeno

The amount of time spent on Zeno was 38 hrs.

Task Time in mins
Set up
Planting /Sowing
Garden Care
Total hrs 38 hrs

The fertility inputs on Zeno were as follows:

Fertility Inputs
Item Total Quantity
Strawbales 31
Compost added to beds pre planting (L) 460 L
Compost for
Tomatoes (L) 17.6 L
Seedling Mix
for Squash (L) 10.4 L
Seedling mix for Beans
(L) 13.2 L
Comfert (L) 44 L
Wood Ash kg 6.72 kg
Mulch - Lawn Mower Clipping (L) 540 L

The yield outputs for Zeno totaled 130.08 kg of produce. This translates to approx 2.36 kg per m2.

Crop Weight in kgs
Tomatoes 55.08
Tomatoes for processing 25.17
Basil 8.01
Beans 14.19
Summer Squash 23.63
Winter Squash 4
130.08 kg

Inputs and Outputs - Zeno Control

The amount of time spent on Zeno was 37 hrs. See below for a breakdown of the time spent on this polyculture.

Zeno Control
Task Time in mins
Set up
Planting /Sowing
Garden Care
Total hrs 37 hrs

The fertility inputs on Zeno control were as follows:

Fertility Inputs
Item Total Quantity
Strawbales 31
Compost added to beds pre planting (L) 460 L
Compost for
Tomatoes (L) 17.6 L
Seedling Mix
for Squash (L) 10.4 L
Seedling mix for Beans
(L) 13.2 L
Comfert (L) 44 L
Wood Ash kg 6.72 kg
Mulch - Lawn Mower Clipping (L) 540 L

The yield outputs for Zeno totaled 112.57 kg of produce. This translates to approx 2.04 kg per m2.

Crop Weight in kgs
Tomatoes 46.55
Tomatoes for processing 20.7
Basil 8.92
Beans 12.55
Summer Squash 22.38
Winter Squash 1.47
112.57 kg

Some time categories were difficult to assign to each polyculture so I clumped them together into a general task category. It's mainly the time preparing the produce for market as well as soil analysis, initial propagation tasks and end of season tidying up and packing away of the garden.

General Tasks
Task Time in mins
Soil Analysis 20
Propagation 240
Set up/down 20
Market Prep 1920
Total 2200
Total hrs 36.5 hrs

Zeno Polyculture vs the Control

It's only the first year we have tried this comparative study so it's too early for any clear implications, but this year's result shows the polyculture out performing the control in terms of yields and the control taking less time to operate in. The fertility inputs were the same for each.

Zeno Control
Total time 38 hrs 37 hrs
Total Produce 130.08 kg 112.57 kg

You can find the above results in the spreadsheet 2016 Annual Polyculture Market Garden Study - Published Records - Sheet 9. Inputs and Outputs per Trial. For date stamped harvest records for Zeno see here and for Epictetus see here.

Inputs and Outputs - All Beds

The amount of time spent on all beds was 149 hrs.

Tasks Minutes Hours
Weeding 721 12.01
Propagation 797 13.28
Set up 1012.5 16.87
Fertility 8 0.13
Planting /Sowing 1436 23.93
Garden Care 1578 26.3
Observation 45 0.75
Mowing 297 4.95
Irrigation 390 6.5
Harvesting 438 7.3
Market Prep 1920 32
Set up/down 20 0.33
Analysis 20 0.33
Total Time Input in hrs 149 hrs

The fertility inputs for all beds were as follows:

Total inputs for all beds
Strawbales 63 bales
Compost 1205 L
Wood Ash 20 kg
Sieved Compost
/River Sand 50 /50 224 L
Lawn Clippings 1620 L
Comfert 88L

Special thanks to Dimo Stefanov from Wastenomore for the excellent compost that we use for our sowing mix and to plant out the crops with. Great stuff !


The yield outputs for all beds totaled 329.96 kg of produce or 3.78 kg per m2.

Produce - All beds
Product Weight in kgs Average weight in
kgs per m2
Carrots 15.465 0.28
Parsnips 19.775 0.35
Dwarf Beans 5.025 0.09
Swiss Chard 21.56 0.39
Kale 13.35 0.24
Beetroot 12.245 0.22
Tomatoes 101.53 0.91
Tomatoes for processing 45.87 0.41
Basil 16.935 0.15
Beans 26.73 0.24
Summer Squash 46.005 0.41
Winter Squash 5.47 0.04
Total kg 329.96
Total kg/m2 3.78kgs/m2

The market value of the produce is as follows:

Market Value
Crop Our Average market price per kg Total Market Value (BGN)
Carrots 2 lev30.93
Parsnips 5.5 lev108.76
Dwarf Beans 6.5 lev32.66
Swiss Chard 12 lev258.72
Kale 12 lev160.20
Beetroot 2 lev24.49
Tomatoes 3.5 lev355.36
Tomatoes for processing 1.5 lev68.81
Basil 34 lev575.79
Beans 6.5 lev173.75
Summer Squash 2.2 lev101.21
Winter Squash 3.8 lev20.79
Total Market Value lev1,911.46
Value per m2 of garden - 256m2 lev6.99
Value per m2 of bed 165.6 m2 lev10.84
Value per hour worked lev12.05

The polyculture garden in Summer

Results in Summary

The garden produced just under 330 kg of produce from a cultivated area of 165.6 m2 - 3.78 kg of produce per m2.

The time spent on the garden was 149 hrs. this time being distributed from sowing the first seeds indoors in February to packing up in late October.

The fertility inputs of the garden were 63 Straw bales, 1205L of compost. 20 kg of wood ash, 224 L of sowing medium, 1620 L of lawn clippings and 88L of Comfert ( Comfrey Tea)

The garden expenses were 115.56 BGN and the estimated value of the produce was 1911.46 BGN providing a profit of 1795.9 BGN. This translates to 12.05 BGN per hr or 10.84 BGN per m2.

Comments on Results

Time Input
Not included in the records were other tasks carried out around the site such as making compost, harvesting stakes and support sticks, establishing beneficial habitat such as wildlife ponds, hedgerows/stick piles.
The time for preparing the produce for market i.e quality control, packaging and delivery, was estimated at 2 hrs per week . We send out weekly veggie boxes and orders from a food coop with produce from our other gardens and did not record separately the polyculture trials produce.
Financial Inputs - Costs
Not included here are the set up costs for the garden. These costs were included in last years results. The costs recorded here are the annual operating costs.
Financial Output - Income
A polyculture market garden should be a polyculture of revenue streams. Our study currently focuses on annual vegetable production. We chose to begin our study of annual vegetables as it is the most accessible practice to most people requiring the least amount of investment making it ideal for a novice or curious grower. Other potential revenue from the Polyculture Market Garden includes perennial crops (see here for a perennial polyculuture study we are starting next year), plant nursery, adding value to produce and courses and training. We hope to add a study of these activities over time to represent better the financial potential of a Polyculture Market Garden.

Design of our new perennial polyculture garden coming in Spring 2017

Entomology Survey - We did begin to record invertebrate diversity in the beds and here you can find a photo album of what was recorded along with some other wildlife that resides in the garden. Thanks to Peter Alfrey for the photo records and survey.

Dylan and Ute in spring sweeping the native plants that grow around the edges of the beds.

Crop failure :-

Aubergines were also included in the Epictetus polyculture and failed to produce any significant yield.
A cold and wet April and May meant that many squash and beans did not germinate. This resulted in less production from beans and squash than would be expected. Next year we will be growing these plants in starter trays under cover and planting out when the weather conditions are favourable.

N.B. The majority of the tasks were carried out by a volunteer team that had little or no prior experience in horticulture. An experienced grower or with repeated experience of these cultivation methods should be able to reduce the task times significantly.

You can access the full spreadsheet here that includes all of the data entries and task descriptions. (note there are multiple sheets that can be accessed from the blue tabs running along the top of the sheet).

Why are we doing this research?

If you are reading this you're most probably aware of the environmental damage caused by industrial agricultural practices We believe this damage is unnecessary, and aim to provide healthier models of agriculture that yield nutritious affordable food while at the same time promoting biodiversity and general ecosystem health.

Polyculture gardens providing food for humans and other organisms

Industrial methods are heavily researched and funded, and there is a general belief among many farmers and growers that this is the only practical way of operating. Following 12 years of cultivating polyculture gardens we are seeing that small scale biologically cultivated polyculture gardens are a realistic and practical way of providing food for humans whilst preserving biodiversity and general health in the environment. Furthermore we believe this type of agriculture can help create thriving local economies that strengthen community, provide dignified work and enhance the amenity value of an area.

Little data exists showing the productive capacity of polyculture systems and the economic viability of them. There is a big need to fill this gap and provide solid data and concise coherent models that can be replicated easily and provide real solutions to the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. This project intends to go some of the way in filling this gap.

We aim to address the following questions;
How productive can polycultures be?
What advantages can polycultures provide ?
How much time do polyculture gardens take to establish and manage?
How economically viable are these gardens?
How bio-diverse can our food producing systems be?
Can we provide clean, nutritious, affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity?

Want to get involved? Sharing, Feedback and Collaboration

We have our record keeping spreadsheets on Google Drive. These spreadsheets (see here) include all of the data entries and task descriptions (note there are multiple sheets that can be accessed from the blue tabs running along the top of the sheet). If you would like to keep your own records we'd be happy to give you a copy of the spreadsheet, just drop us an email or leave a comment below with your contact details and we will send it over to you.

If you have any suggestions and feedback on how you think we could improve the study or you have heard about or practice similar studies on other guild/polycultures we'd love to hear from you.

Next Year's Study

We're looking for a team of volunteers for 2017. If you'd like to join us have a read through the process here, register and we'll get straight back to you.

Permaculture Research

For more info and links to research check out the PIRN ( Permaculture International Research Network ) and the Permaculture Research Digest.

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